I recently moved houses. (Yes, we are those “COVID made me move” people.)
While I was packing up over a decade’s worth of ‘stuff’, I found a performance review from my third year of practice shoved in the bottom of an old banker’s box. Reading the comments made me think about how much I have grown as a lawyer, especially when it comes to receiving negative feedback.
For some context, the following are direct quotes from reviews from the partners I worked with that year (edited for confidentiality) discussing my written advocacy skills:
“Erin’s written work product was clear, direct, and concise.”
“Very solid writing skills. Precise and clear.”
“Erin has very strong drafting skills. Her writing is point first and persuasive.”
“Erin consistently produces first rate written work product. It is clear, user friendly and responsive to the issues it is intended to address.”
“I did not think Erin’s written work was at the expected level. I was disappointed with the draft facta (sic) in the ‘XYZ’ matter and they required substantial re-working.”
I didn’t remember the first four reviews, but that final one has stuck with me for 12 years. Especially the word “disappointed”. As a recovering people pleaser, I hate disappointing anyone, especially someone who is relying on me to do a good job.
I also remember my reaction when I first read that review. I remember avoiding the partner in the halls. I was angry. I was hurt. I thought it was unfair. I was in a bad mood. It didn’t matter that the rest of my review was glowing. That final comment was the only one that counted.
It took me a long time to learn how to handle this type of feedback and criticism of my work.
It took me even longer to realize that negative feedback can be a good thing.
Over the years I have relied on a few tips that have helped me when receiving negative feedback. These tips work for lawyers of all ages and stages because as we progress in our career, partners may no longer be critiquing our work, but management, opposing counsel, judges, and our clients are:
1. Don’t rush to respond. Take a breather.
Our first instinct will be to be defensive. I remember wanting to explain to the partner why his criticism was unwarranted, why I decided to draft the documents the way I did, why he was wrong. I felt the need to explain away the criticism.
Folks, this is not helpful. It wasn’t until I was on the other end of providing feedback that I truly understood how unproductive this defensive behaviour can be.
I remember one articling student. Whenever I politely provided feedback or suggestions on how to improve his work, he immediately pushed back with an excuse: “Well so-and-so does it this way” or “You should have told me you wanted it done this way” or “I’m only an articling student”. I was trying to mentor him and help him improve his legal practice, but he wanted none of it. He never listened to the specific feedback; instead, because he did not hear the glowing review he expected, he pushed back. Eventually I just stopped working with him.
When a more senior lawyer, or a client, gives you negative feedback, fight the urge to speak. You will be defensive. We are only human. Take a breather. Maybe ask for time to respond if you need to. And listen. Truly listen to what they are saying. Try to understand the root of the criticism. Is it a fact (you missed a deadline)? Or an opinion (I don’t like how you wrote this)? If it’s a fact, immediately own up to the mistake or accept the criticism. If it is an opinion, see the next tip.
2. Ask questions to understand the feedback.
If the feedback is not a fact, but an opinion, ask questions to understand. If we do not understand the negative feedback, we cannot act on it. What parts of the Statement of Claim need improvement? How could it be improved? What parts of the document did they like? etc.
3. Don’t avoid the person or hold a grudge: You are only hurting yourself.
Yes, it is uncomfortable knowing that someone didn’t like your work. But if you avoid that partner or client, you are only hurting yourself. You will be missing out not only on opportunities to work with, and learn from, that person again, but you will also miss out on showing that you listened to their feedback and used it to improve.
4. Remember that not all criticism may be warranted.
Sometimes the criticism is unwarranted. Consider where the criticism is coming from. Did your work product really fall below expected standards or does this partner always rewrite everyone’s work, no matter what? Does ego play a part? Or more importantly, is the criticism directed at you because of your gender, race or sexual orientation?
This is why asking questions is so important. By digging into the criticism, it will be easier to see the intent behind it.
5. Understand the Positive Side to Receiving Negative Feedback
Remember that proper feedback comes from an intent to help. That partner or client wants to let you know what went wrong so you won’t do it again. Often, we don’t see our own shortcomings. Be grateful that someone has taken the time to provide that feedback to you and that you now have an opportunity to be an even better lawyer than you already are.
So, back to my negative review.
Why did that partner write that comment?
Maybe I wrote some crappy factums.
Maybe I was working several long hours, for several days and I was too tired to produce stellar work.
Maybe I forgot to use active voice.
Maybe I missed some case law.
Maybe the partner had a particular way he liked factums to be written and I failed to follow his preference.
Or, maybe I just suck at writing.
But I will never know.
Instead of asking questions to understand the feedback better and to learn how to improve my legal writing, I ignored the partner. I missed an opportunity. Don’t be me.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance lawyer, entrepreneur, legal career consultant researcher & writer, and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.